The fine-dining menu at The Hive is almost as playful as the 19-hoop basketball stand out front. Pimento cheese? Arkansas trail-mix sides? A ham-brined pork chop? (Because what can make pork taste more porky than, well, pork?) Finish with parsnip cake, and you’ve just taken a tour of the northwest Arkansas farms supplying the sophisticated dining room in Bentonville’s new 21c Museum Hotel.
Chef Matt McClure oversees the kitchen. The Arkansas native who served as a chef at Ashley’s, widely considered Little Rock’s best high-end restaurant, never thought he’d find a palette for culinary art in Bentonville, best known as home to Walmart’s corporate headquarters. (Walmart founder Sam Walton launched his first 5 and 10 store here in 1950.) But the 2011 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has turned this city of 35,000 into a tourist destination.
“The restaurants here use a lot of local ingredients. They’re honest,” Matt says. “To me, that’s one of the best compliments I can get—that (my food is) honest.”
Turns out that honesty flavors every part of this journey from Bentonville through the Boston Mountains to Little Rock. Once you see the area, you understand why Walmart heiress Alice Walton chose Bentonville as the site for the free-admission Crystal Bridges art museum. Art connoisseurs on the coasts balked—Arkansas? But it didn’t take long for at least some detractors to see that the graceful setting, complete with natural springs and hiking trails on 120 acres, felt like home for works by Warhol, Rockwell and O’Keeffe.
Bentonville’s burgeoning food scene (driven in large part by the new museum) has revitalized the town square, now host to quirky boutiques and food carts selling crepes, barbecue, vegan dishes and traditional Mexican cuisine.
The secret? “Arkansas food is local food because we didn’t have the resources to get our food from far away,” says Daniel Hintz, who moved here from Seattle to head up the city’s redevelopment. “Arkansas was cool before we knew it.”
Cool takes on new meaning during the journey down to Little Rock. Interstates speed the drive; the scenic byway State-7 winds through Ozark National Forest. Perched on the edge of a canyon, the seasonal Cliff House Inn has porch gliders and waitresses who write “God bless!” on meal tickets. You can almost hear the dining room’s fiddle-laced music as you continue your drive, the road snaking over the Buffalo National River bridge and past ramshackle houses before turning southeast toward the capital.
A vintage Mobil gas station still stands across the street from the massive stone Little Rock Central High School. The still-operational school looks just as it did when federal troops escorted nine teenagers to class in 1957 when Gov. Orval Faubus refused to integrate the school. Gone are the screaming, spitting adults who threatened the Little Rock Nine; in their place, a National Historic Site visitors center across the street shares their story and challenges people to consider how today’s bullying echoes those shameful images. “You can know nothing about civil rights, and this story will touch you,” park ranger Brian Schwieger says. “It’s about kids; it’s about school. We’ve all been kids, and we’ve all been to school.”
Honesty brushes the storytelling in varying degrees at the Clinton Presidential Center. Volunteer guides say the facility, which stores the president’s 80 million papers, isn’t an homage to a man but a chronicling of history. But nearly all of the displays on the 29-acre campus tout Clinton’s accomplishments; a single alcove explores his impeachment and scandals.
Still, no one can deny the Clintons’ impact in Little Rock. The museum spurred $2.5 billion of downtown development, including the bike-friendly Arkansas River Trail, upscale restaurants and the eclectic River Market district, where office workers buy lunch from indoor vendors selling pad Thai, soul food, Middle Eastern tabbouleh, Mexican carnitas and salted caramel ice pops.
Just a quarter-mile west, gracious Southern hospitality touches every corner of the storied Capital Hotel, where front-desk staffers don’t just hand out keys; they escort visitors to one of the 94 plush rooms while sharing some of the legends (good, bad and otherwise) of Little Rock’s oldest lodging. Beneath the lobby’s stained-glass ceiling, the entrance to Ashley’s awaits—its kitchen known for perfect French-tinged cuisine like Thai coconut soup with crab dumplings and melty braised short ribs served atop fresh spring vegetables.
The formality serves as a marked contrast to Little Rock’s trendy and laid-back SoMa (Southside Main Street) area, where The Root serves locally sourced breakfast and lunch in a former hot dog stand. Across the street, The Green Corner Store and Soda Fountain has returned to its building’s 1906 roots; it sells ecofriendly products and handcrafted ice cream under a brand named for the Arkansas state tree (loblolly). Farmers markets and seasonal events, like the spring plant sale and poultry swap, bind the neighborhood together. It feels vibrant and honest—a welcome bookend to the energy waiting just a few hours northwest in a reimagined corporate town.
For more information or to plan your trip: Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 410-8535; bentonville.org
What to do
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Celebrating American art, this beautiful, free-admission museum straddles natural springs; wander the wooded property on trails. (479) 418-5700; crystalbridges.org
Museum of Native American History Containing an impressive number of prehistoric tools, pottery and artwork, the museum explores Native American culture in astounding detail. (479) 273-2456; monah.us
The Walmart Museum The $465 billion corporation has humble roots. See original store artifacts, learn about how founder Sam Walton created his empire, tour the visitors center, and enjoy moon pies and sundaes at the on-site soda fountain. (479) 273-1329; facebook.com/walmartmuseum
Where to eat
Eleven at Crystal Bridges Floor-to-ceiling windows pour natural light into this museum cafe, which serves soups, salads and sandwiches crafted with Ozark-grown ingredients. (479) 418-5700; crystalbridges.org/eleven
The Hive Local farmers drive the seasonal menu, which has included milk-braised rabbit and a burger topped with pimentos. This upscale spot nestles next to the lobby in the 21C Museum Hotel. (479) 286-6575; thehivebentonville.com
Pressroom A coffee bar in the old home of the local newspaper’s presses has a simple, locally sourced menu including granola and steel-cut oatmeal studded with cranberries for breakfast, as well as sandwiches and light entrees later in the day. (479) 657-2905; pressroomcoffee.com
Table Mesa Bistro This contemporary Latin eatery has a mishmash of a menu: Spanish tapas, Asian-Latin fusion, Mexican tacos. Some items are more successful than others. Stick with the outstanding tapas, including bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with cream cheese and Gorgonzola. (479) 715-6706; tablemesabistro.com
Where to stay
21c Museum Hotel This new 104-room hotel features clean lines and contemporary art in the guest rooms and the public spaces (including a chandelier layered with hair in the lobby). High ceilings and large windows give guest rooms an airy feel. From $179. (479) 286-6500; 21cmuseumhotels.com/bentonville
For more information or to plan your trip: Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 844-4781; littlerock.com
What to do
Historic Arkansas Museum Explore the state’s past through paintings, photographs, pottery, furniture and jewelry, all made in Arkansas. (501) 324-9351; historicarkansas.org
Arkansas River Trail The 34-mile loop crosses Big Dam Bridge. At more than 4,000 feet, it’s one of the longest pedestrian and bicycle-only bridges in North America. arkansasrivertrail.org
Butler Center Galleries Located inside the Arkansas Studies Institute, across the street from the River Market, this art gallery and gift shop bursts with Arkansan-made items that make great souvenirs. (501) 320-5790; arstudies.com
Clinton Presidential Center Learn about America’s 42nd president through exhibits and memorabilia, including the president’s schedule for each day he was in office and a full-size replica of the Oval Office. (501) 374-4242; clintonpresidentialcenter.org
The Green Corner Store and Soda Fountain You’ll find quirky, ecofriendly odds and ends, including lotions, jewelry and candles, plus small-batch ice cream. (501) 374-1111; thegreencornerstore.com
Heifer Village Bordering the Clinton Presidential Center, this nonprofit center educates about efforts to end hunger and poverty around the world. The gift shop sells high-quality ornaments, handbags and other items made by artisans in developing nations. (877) 870-2697; heifer.org/heifervillage
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site The 1957 uproar over integration in America’s public schools comes to vivid life in this center. Learn about the Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, ruling and how the lessons learned then relate to bullying in today’s schools. (501) 374-1957; www.nps.gov/chsc
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center Photographs, recorded interviews and displays explore the history of Little Rock and Arkansas through the eyes of African-Americans. The top floor includes the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. (501) 683-3593; mosaictemplarscenter.com
Where to eat
Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel Considered the best restaurant in town, Ashley’s delivers on classy ambience, stellar service and French-inspired food. (501) 374-7474; capitalhotel.com
River Market Vendors serve Japanese, Mexican, Middle Eastern, soul food and ice pops in Ottenheimer Market Hall along the Arkansas River. (501) 375-2552; rivermarket.info
The Root Simple breakfasts and lunches in the SoMa neighborhood highlight creative use of local farmers’ sustainably raised meats and produce. Our knockout breakfast included sausage biscuits, fluffy pancakes and a Thai-influenced omelet. (501) 414-0423; therootcafe.com
Where to stay
Capital Hotel The stately building entices guests, and the elegant rooms confirm its Southern charm. From $215. (501) 374-7474; capitalhotel.com
Along Scenic Byway State-7
Buffalo Outdoors Center To see some of Arkansas’ most beautiful scenery, take State-7 toward Ponca, where this expert outfitter awaits. Friendly, knowledgable guides prep travelers for canoeing, hiking and zip lining. Extend your visit with a stay in one of the center’s updated and cozy cabins. From $129. (870) 861-5514; buffaloriver.com
Cliff House Inn In Jasper, diners craving homey and hearty dishes nosh on fried chicken and cobbler topped with ice cream while enjoying breathtaking views. Note that it’s open from mid-March to October. (870) 446-2292; cliffhouseinnar.com